December 10, 2014


My wife and I often travel on Southwest Airlines; whenever we do so, I like to peruse their in-flight magazine, Spirit. The cover story in the July 2014 issue was titled “As the Lights Go Down.”

Nicole Kear begins her gripping story with these riveting words: “The day I found out I was going blind started out like any other.” She was nineteen years old, a sophomore at Yale, undecided as to whether to major in English or in theater.

A routine appointment with her doctor turned out to be anything but! The eye-specialist shattered her dreams by announcing that she had a degenerative retinal disease called “retinitis pigmentosa.” My retinal cells were slowly dying which would result in gradual vision loss. First the disease would eat away at my night and peripheral vision, and eventually it would claim my central vision too…. It was untreatable and incurable.

As she walked the twenty blocks back to her home, she was overcome by wave after wave of fear: “But more than anything, I felt instant and irrevocable loss, like a kid who’s just lost her grip on a helium balloon. I made a grab for it, fast, but it was too late, and I watched helplessly as it receded, further and further out of reach.”

As time passed, she felt for a time that she’d be crushed under the strain of knowing that darkness was inevitable. “But something else was happening, too. Through the fog of my shock and confusion, I started seeing everything with the eyes of someone looking for the last time. Sights I’d always taken for granted–the bits of sparkle in the pavement, the bright, brilliant red of the streetlight–seemed immensely, heart-breakingly beautiful. I’d wasted so much time, I scolded myself, being blind to the beauty around me. Knowing it wouldn’t last forever, I became ravenous for images.”

So how was she to face it?

“Though I couldn’t control my disease or the blindness it could bring, I could control how I responded to it…. In the time I had left, I could stuff my brain with images in hopes they’d be enough to last a lifetime. I could use the death sentence my eyes had been given as a kick in the pants to start really living.”

Time passed. One afternoon, she sat down with her leather-bound journal and drew up a personal bucket list of things she wanted to see and do before her vision gave out. She called it her carpe diem campaign.

She double-majored in English and theater, learned how to be a circus clown, learned how to master the flying trapeze, and traveled to Europe. In Rome, “I sat in front of the Pantheon, drinking in every column, every chiseled Latin letter, sketching these details in my journal in an effort to permanently imprint them on my memory.” She picked sweet-peas on a farm in North Italy, hiked cloud-capped mountains to see where Ovid had lived, watched men on Vespas smoking cigarettes and women gossiping while leaning out of windows, and smelled the sweet aroma of marinara sauce simmering on stovetops. “Spending all the money I’d saved from birthdays and graduations, I bought a Eurorail pass and set off with my sister to Paris, where we watched Grand Guignol puppet shows, and Amsterdam, where we stood by narrow canals eating wheels of black licorice. I witnessed the sunrise over Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, and I felt near to bursting with awe at the beauty and the grandeur.”

After college, she moved back to New York, where she performed Shakespeare in the lower East Side, 1950s cult classics in the West Village, and avant-garde German theater on St. Mark’s Place.

She fell in love several times–but finally the real thing: David proposed to her in the middle of the Smoky Mountains.

Next came Hollywood: “I was an actor, after all, and in L.A. the streets were paved with TV pilots. David and I quit our day jobs as long-term temps at an investment bank, packed our stuff, and ventured west. I was bowled over by California’s beauty. Rolling, golden hills that looked like sleeping lions. Jagged cliffs with precipitous drops to the churning, foaming Pacific Ocean. Even the light was different, and the smells. Every time I walked out my front door and inhaled the scent of jasmine, I stopped to marvel . . . sniffing jasmine blossoms made me feel like a Disney princess.”

Driving became more and more difficult. She’d become totally night-blind. As her field of vision continued to shrink, she bumped into things more and more, and fell down stairs–and fumbled her stage-lines.

Then she discovered she was pregnant. But now, color-blindness was setting in, and her depth-perception was going too. Even so, She and David decided to go ahead with it. “When my son made his entrance, just after midnight on Thanksgiving Night, I soaked in so many sights: his strong chin, bee-stung eyes, the complex curvature of his ear, so tiny it made my heart ache with tenderness…. Two years later I saw my daughter for the first time, a ruddy, round-cheeked newborn sporting a Mohawk.” There were details she couldn’t see, but she didn’t worry about that.

By the time she was 34, she was deemed legally blind. She could no longer read regular print. Even so, she decided to have another baby. “My third baby is now 2 years old, and I’ve been able to read her books (if the text is big enough), take her to the playground (if it’s enclosed), and watch her blow out her birthday candles.”

Nicole Kear concludes her remarkable story with these poignant words: “But I’ve learned not to peer too anxiously into the future. Hindsight may be 20/20, but what’s to come is too murky for any of us to make out. My eyes are so dim that I need to train them on the present, to soak up as much as I can, to slow it down, to make it last. As much as I can, I stop to smell the roses–and while I’m there, I look at them, long and hard. Those blazing red streetlights. The way the skin on the top of my children’s noses wrinkles when they smile. . . I don’t know the kind of life I might have had or the kind of woman I might have become if that appointment 18 years ago had actually been routine. . . . What I do know is the life I have is nothing like what I expected, but it is everything I wanted–full of beauty, love, and a light beyond anything the eye can see.”

Nicole Kear is the author of the new memoir, Now I See You.

* * * * *

Four months after reading this, on a 55th anniversary cruise from San Diego through the Panama Canal to Fort Lauderdale, my eyes became progressively more difficult to keep open, and the pain increased continuously. In Fort Lauderdale, our son rushed me to an eye specialist.

I can now see again, but it has resulted in a profoundly greater appreciation for the daily miracle of sight.

I conclude with this quotation penned by Harry Moyle Tippett:

Out of a world of total silence and darkness Helen Keller found a way to a world of light and holy purpose. In the top floor bedroom at Forest Hills . . . there were eight windows looking out into a vast expanse of blue sky by day and of star-studded velvet by night. Small strings guided her steps to the sanctuary, and there she reveled in an inner illumination that matched the glorious light of day she could not see and the silver sheen of stars she could only feel. She said, ‘I learned that it is possible for us to create light and sound and order within us, no matter what calamity may befall us in the outer world.’



April 9, 2014

Next to me in an office supply store line was a young woman in her mid to late 30s. She was working so hard to get just right a lamination of a long sheet of quotations that everyone in the waiting line got interested in her. Turns out that it wasn’t even for her, but for a dear friend. When I mentioned to her that her friend was lucky to have such a caring friend, she remarked in a very soft voice to me that creating this gift for her friend took her mind off her own troubles.

Conversationally, almost as an aside, I said, “Hopefully, your troubles aren’t too bad.”

When she puddled up, I realized I was in too deep to back out without further dialogue, and, well, one question led to another and before I knew it we’d moved away from the counter so she could speak confidentially. It helped that she’d purchased some of my books in recent years and trusted me.

It was far far worse than I had imagined: her husband had recently died from cancer. . . . Her teenage son had got in with the wrong crowd, overdosed on drugs, and died. . . . Without her husband’s income, she’d lost their home. . . . And the final straw: she’d lost her job too. She was homeless and destitute and didn’t know where in the world to turn.

She summed it all up with these poignant words: “God is my last resort, and I struggle to make sense of it all one day at a time.”

“One day at a time.”

* * * * *

Which reminds me of another encounter I had in a hospital break room a few years ago. I incorporated it into my story, “The Clock of Life.” in Christmas in My Heart 18 almost five years ago.

I’d been operated on for an obstruction in my bile duct that had resulted in my skin turning yellow with jaundice. My hospitalist had told me that if I made it to dawn without the most excruciating pain I’d ever experienced, that would mean I’d escaped pancreatitis. So I walked the hospital corridors hour after hour, stopping once in a while in the break room. Once, there was a woman sitting there who was the spouse of another patient in the ward. Turned out that her husband had a rare virulent form of leukemia. When I asked how severe it was, she answered almost matter of factly, “He can’t even turn over without my help.”

I followed up by asking, “And how long has he had this condition?”

There was a very long pause before, in a soft but strained voice, she answered, “Twenty-five years!”“

I was so stunned, I was almost unable to speak. Finally, I said, “Twenty-five years?

She nodded. “Yes. And in all that time I’ve never left him–not even for a day.”

I could only stammer, “My dear woman, how do you do it?”

Never will I forget her response: “God gives me strength for one day at a time.”

* * * * *

I was on the phone for over an hour one night recently. On the other end of the line was a friend I’d worked with in a university some years before. His voice was so soft I hardly recognized it. He’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was so weak he couldn’t even get out of his chair without his wife’s help. He was undergoing 28-day cycles of radiation, each of which did all but kill him. The prognosis looked anything but good.

In situations like this one is almost incapable of speech. What do you say to a dear one who knows for a certainty that, unless a miracle takes place, he is living his last hours in life?

I told him I’d been praying for him. He told me that many others were praying for him too. . . and added, “It’s not too hard: we all know we’re going to die, so it’s not an “if,” only a “when.” And clearly he was getting his house in order: family and close friends visited him or phoned him often.

And he now lived “one day at a time.”

Before I signed of, he thanked me again for taking the time to call, saying, “You’re part of what means most to me: true friends who stay by me to the end.”

* * * * *

One day at a time. . . . God gives us strength for one day at a time.

WSJ – Best Kept Secret in America?

May 29, 2013

It certainly was a secret where I was concerned, for all those years I just considered the Wall Street Journal to be merely the best-known of all financial newspapers, and what tycoons and wannabe tycoons subscribed to. Was I ever wrong!

Perhaps up until recently I just wasn’t ready to find out, lulled as I was by the assumption that, after half a millennium years of cultural dominance by print and paper, nothing significant was likely to alter that state of affairs.

But then came the long societal earthquake which triggered a seemingly endless succession of toppling dominoes. Small-town newspapers were first; then large dailies such as Rocky Mountain News in Colorado. At first I managed to console myself that the demise of that beloved old paper might not be all bad if the surviving paper, The Denver Post, would thereby become twice as strong, twice as rich, twice as interesting – but that didn’t happen. Then I began to hear of the demise of other well-known newspapers. And the ones that managed to survive seemed to be but pale shadows of what they once were, kept alive only by advertising; and when that too began to go elsewhere, massive staff layoffs became the norm.

Magazines were next. Actually, this equally sad development was anything but new, for magazines had been in steady retreat ever since the Great Depression hit in the 1930’s. Indeed magazines had ruled supreme over all other media in the 1910’s,1920’s and 1930’s, magazine editors paying writers more than book publishers or movie studio producers. Even though my wife and I had subscribed to both Time and Newsweek over the years, we’d always preferred Newsweek. Then I began to hear rumors I first considered to be all but impossible: my favorite news magazine, after a century of vibrant life, might not make it. And, not long before its last print issue; same for another news magazine I’d often read or consulted: U.S. News and World Report.

And then came what I first assumed would be merely a fad: e-books. Not in my wildest dreams did I envision electronic books ever challenging the supremacy of printed books! But like Dickens’ immortal supplanter, Uriah Heep, in David Copperfield, e-books seemingly were determined to supplant traditional ink and paper.

Just when I’d almost given up on print, one day at an airport, I idly picked up a copy of WSJ. Huh? Couldn’t be! After all, USA Today had a monopoly on national newspaper readership. Or did it?

I kept buying WSJ, then subscribed to it. An eye-opening series of daily newspaper thefts (always the WSJ, never The Denver Post), jolted me. Was the WSJ so good that people would break the law to steal copies that didn’t belong to them? Evidently so.

Gradually I became aware that a phoenix was arising from the graveyards of print. A newspaper that was a print window to the world. In depth, well-written, fascinating articles, columns, reviews, etc., that kept me informed on events, not just local, not just national, but global. And not just financial, not just political, but something I as a historian of ideas had only seen in Smithsonian’s incredible monthly magazines – art, music, books, fashion, religion, history, anthropology, geology, biography, cinema, television, burning cultural issues, sports . . . on and on. And Friday and Saturday’s expanded issues were so fascinating it would sometimes take half a day to fully digest them. I no longer missed Newsweek.

Having said all this, in many respects the same conclusions could be drawn for newspapers such as the New York Times, that also deliver well-drawn windows to the world. Indeed, a case could be made for reading both newspapers in order to arrive at a balanced synthesis of opposing political viewpoints.

Nor am I maintaining that faithfully reading newspapers such as WSJ or NYT each day may alone result in Renaissance men or Renaissance women, for today we are bombarded by such incessant streams of knowledge and information (mostly electronically) that the big problem may have to do with the distillation of it: making sense of it all.

We ought to be concerned about the demise of journalism, evidenced by the killing off of elementary and secondary newspapers, for the result will be a further diminution of adult journalistic minds. For make no mistake about it: electronic sound-bytes, thirty-second attack ads, electronic infomercials, and half-hour news broadcasts that include no more news substance than would fill one-half-page of newspapers such as the WSJ or NYT, are no substitute for thoughtful in-depth reading; for simplistic pre-digested information, not offset by broad in-depth reading, inevitably will result in adults crippled by myopic views of life and current issues.

Which brings me back to the reason I walk out each morning to the mailbox: to pick up The Denver Post (that fills me in on local/regional news) and the Wall Street Journal (that broadens my horizon so that I can see the broad global picture – the Zeitgeist).

What a pity that so few Americans today realize what they are missing by their disregard of newspapers, magazines and books.




 February 1, 2012

Blame Thoreau’s Walden for this blog.  Since I’d already read this month’s Book of the Month, I mistakenly assumed I could coast on that long-ago reading.  But I did feel I ought to at least scan it.  That didn’t last long for I soon discovered that my earlier reading of this timeless classic was so superficial that I might as well never have read it at all.

My re-reading jolting to a halt in Chapter 4, titled “Sounds.”  What brought my train of thought to a dead standstill was Thoreau’s masterful exegesis on trains.  I had long been aware of the revolutionary aspects of the Industrial Age, especially that of steam.  Few, in the 1820s and 1830s realized that the world they knew had reached its terminus.  Stewart H. Holbrook, in his landmark book, The Story of American Railroads (New York: Crown publishers, 1947) notes that “The coming of the railroad, and the rapidity with which it expanded during the 1830s found a public wholly unprepared, and pretty much confused.  What, thoughtful men now asked one another, was a railroad?  There had been little thinking on the subject, hence there was no philosophy of railroads.  The canal builders and operators, of course, simply damned the new method of transportation on every count they could think of.  It was dangerous.  It wouldn’t work.  It was merely a clever method by which smart scoundrels could steal your money more or less legally by selling you worthless stock . . . .  The railroad was also against nature.  And, finally, it was against God; and many a preacher found friends among canal and stagecoach men when he opened up full blast on this new curse that a tireless Satan had promulgated to try all Christian men” (25).

Up until the advent of steam, clocks were merely a luxury, rich people’s toys.  For the average person, sundials worked fine.  When the fastest speed known to men was a galloping horse or a sailing ship, each subject to disruption on primitive roads or stormy or becalming seas, exact times of arrival and departure were merely guesstimates.  But now along comes steam-propelled trains and ships.  How could they even function without relatively exact time?  Time zones were nonexistent back then, for who needed them?

Now, however, each time another station was added to a railroad route, correct time became more and more significant.  With that reality in mind, plant yourself in Thoreau’s cabin by Walden Pond during the years 1845-7.  Time-travel back to that heretofore agricultural age in which the fastest travel was in stagecoaches, with nothing except leather straps to absorb the jolting over often terrible roads.  So, visiting with Thoreau, you hear a new sound; you view a new force, a staggering reality: for the first time in recorded history, the pace of life speeds up.  A new force shatters the serenity of thousands of years.  Looking over Thoreau’s shoulder, so to speak, you follow as his quill dips in and out of the inkwell and he chronicles his reactions on the pages of his journal.

Let’s see what his reactions were: Earlier in this chapter, he noted that he was able to enjoy undisturbed solitude and stillness . . . with the occasional noise of “some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway.”  He was barely conscious of the passing of time: “My days were not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock; for I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that, ‘for yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday, forward for to-morrow, and overhead for the passing day.’” Walden (New York: The Heritage Press, 1939, 118).

But then comes the Fitchburg Railroad!  “The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous country traders from the other side. . . .  Here comes your groceries, country; your rations, countrymen!  Nor is any man so independent on his farm that he can say them nay.  And here’s your pay for them! Screams the countryman’s whistle; timber like long battering-rams going twenty miles an hour against the city walls, and chairs enough to seat all the weary and heavy-laden that dwell within them. . . .  All the Indian huckleberry hills are stripped, all the cranberry meadows are raked into the city.  Up comes the cotton, down goes the woven cloth; up comes the silk, down goes the woollen; up comes the books, but down goes the wit that writes them.”

“When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving off with planetary motion—or, rather, like a comet, for the beholder knows not if with that velocity and with that direction it will ever revisit this system, since its orbit does not look like a returning curve—with its steam-cloud like a banner streaming behind in golden and silver wreaths, like many a downy cloud which I have seen, high in the heavens, unfolding its masses to the light—as if this traveling demigod, this  cloud-compeller, would ere long take the sunset sky for the livery of his train; when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if the earth has got a race now worthy to inhabit it.  If all were as it seems, and men made the elements their servants for noble ends!  If the cloud that hangs over the engine were the perspiration of heroic deeds, or as beneficent as that which floats over the farmer’s fields, then the elements and Nature herself would cheerfully accompany men on their errands, and be their escort.

“I watch the passage of the morning cars with the same feeling that I do the rising of the sun, which is hardly more regular.  Their train of clouds stretching far behind and rising higher and higher, going to heaven while the cars are going to Boston, conceals the sun for a minute and casts my distant field into the shade, a celestial train beside which the petty train of cars which hugs the earth is but the barb of the spear.  The stabler of the iron horse was up early this winter morning by the light of the stars amid the mountains, to fodder and harness his steed.  Fire, too, was awakened thus early to put the vital heat in him and get him off.  If the enterprise were as innocent as it is early!  If the snow lies deep, they strap on his snowshoes, and with the giant plough plough a furrow from the mountains to the sea-board, in which the cars, like a following drill-barrow, sprinkle all the restless men and floating merchandise in the country for seed.  All day the fire-steed flies over the country, stopping only that his master may rest, and I am awakened by his tramp and defiant snort at midnight, when in some remote glen in the woods he fronts the elements incased in ice and snow; and he will reach his stall only with the morning star, to start once more on his travels without rest or slumber.  Or perchance, at evening, I hear him in his stable blowing off the superfluous energy of the day, that he may calm his nerves and cool his liver and brain for a few hours of iron slumber.  If the enterprise were as heroic and commanding as it is protracted and unwearied!

“Far through unfrequented woods on the confines of towns, where once only the hunter penetrated by day, in the darkest night dart these bright saloons without the knowledge of their inhabitants; this moment stopping at some brilliant station-house in town or city, where a social crowd is gathered, the next in the Dismal Swamp, scaring the owl and fox.  The startings and arrivals of the cars are now the epochs in the village day.  They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-conducted institution regulates a whole country.  Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented?  Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office?  There is something electrifying in the atmosphere of the former place.  I have been astonished at the miracles it has wrought; that some of my neighbors, who, I should have prophesied, once for all, would never get to Boston by so prompt a conveyance, are on hand when the bell rings.  To do things “railroad fashion” is now the by-word; and it is worth the while to be warned so often and so sincerely by any power to get off its track.  There is no stopping to read the riot act, no firing over the heads of the mob, in this case.  We have constructed a fate, an Atropos, that never turns aside.  (Let that be the name of your engine.)  Men are advertised that at a certain hour and minute these bolts will be shot toward particular points of the compass; yet it interferes with no man’s business, and the children go to school on the other track.  We live the steadier for it.  We are all educated thus to be sons of Tell.  The air is full of invisible bolts.  Every path but your own is the path of fate.  Keep on your own track, then.” (121-124)

* * * * *

However, even though Thoreau’s townspeople in Concord set their clocks by the train’s whistle that didn’t mean that the American people now lived by the same time.  Far from it!

Let’s return to Holbrook.  Decades after Thoreau’s Walden Pond days, the situation had not yet been fully resolved: “At first no timetables were issued the traveling public.  Only operating crews and station agents were given the crude, handwritten sheets which, incidentally, were more hopeful than accurate. . . .  “

“The railroads naturally ran all of their trains by the local time of the road’s terminal.  In the case of the New York Central this meant that its trains, leaving Manhattan by terminal time, arrived at Buffalo fifteen minutes late by Buffalo time.  In the latitude of Chicago, it was known, the passage of the sun across the meridian varied one minute for every thirteen miles, or one second for every 1,140 feet of longitude.  Railroads had long since ceased to think in terms of hours only, but were holding their schedules to minutes.  The Pennsylvania used Philadelphia time in the East, which was 5 minutes slower than New York City’s, but 5 minutes faster than Baltimore time.  The B&O system was very complicated.  It used Baltimore time for trains running out of Baltimore, Columbus time for trains in Ohio, Vincennes time for trains west of Cincinnati.  When solar time was noon in Chicago, it was 12:31 in Pittsburgh, 12:24 in Cleveland, 12:13 in Cincinnati, 12:09 in Louisville, 12:07 in Indianapolis, 11;50 in St. Louis, 11:48 in Dubuque, 11:41 in St. Paul, 11:27 in Omaha.  There were at least 27 local times in Michigan, 38 in Wisconsin, 27 in Illinois, and 23 in Indiana.  A careful traveler, going from Eastport, Maine, to San Francisco, changed his stem-winder 20 times during the trip.

“In Kansas City, and to a certain extent in Boston, each of the leading jewelers set up his own standard time and defended it with the same emotional intensity generally expended only in defending a religion.  Each jeweler’s customers became partisans, loud and insistent.  The situation in Kansas City became so bad, what with everybody missing trains and one thing and another, that the town at last adopted a time-ball system.

“In every city and town the multiplicity of time standards confused and bewildered passengers, shippers, and railway employees.  Only too often errors and mistakes turned out disastrously, for railroads were now running fast trains on tight schedules; a minute or two might mean the difference between smooth operation and a collision.” (Holbrook, 355).


After decades of wrangling, resolution was finally reached.  Authorized by the U.S. Supreme Court, the fateful date chosen was November 18, 1883 (only 123 years ago); the time: noon.  The clocks used by all the railroads in the nation were reset to fit the four time standards (zones) that had finally been agreed upon.  Holbrook takes us to the exact moment when time as we know it began:

“The change, welcome though it was, put something of a strain on all railroads, for the adjustment called for extreme care and watchfulness lest disasters due to collisions occur.  Specific orders were issued on every division.  Train crews were instructed as to what change to make in their watches.  A typical order was that issued by Superintendent Rowland of the Louisville & Nashville. “Should any train or engine be caught between telegraph stations at 10 A.M. on Sunday, November 18, “it read, “they will stop at precisely 10 o’clock wherever they may be and stand still and securely protect their trains or engines in the rear and front until 10:18 A.M., and then turn their watches back to precisely 10 o’clock, new standard time, and then proceed on card rights or on any special orders they may have in their possession for the movement of their trains to the first telegraph station where they will stop and compare watches with the clock and be sure they    have the correct new standard time before leaving . . .”

“On the 18th, as the minutes ticked away in the morning, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune found an unusual blanket of solemnity in the West Side Union Depot, which served the Pennsylvania, Burlington, Pan Handle, and Alton railroads.  He sensed that all present felt something of an extraordinary nature was about to happen.  At quarter to noon, Chicago local time, conductors, engineers and other employees began dropping into the lobby, each with timepiece in hand.  Depot Master Cropsey had his fine chronometer under a strong magnifying glass to mark the exact second.  When the big clock on the wall, by which the running of the trains in the depot was regulated, stood fair at noon, it was stopped.  Telegraph instruments were then connected with the pendulum of the clock in the observatory at Allegheny, Pennsylvania.  Each movement of the pendulum was faithfully repeated by the ticking instruments, and at exactly 9 minutes 32 seconds after 12, Chicago time, “the movement of the pendulum stopped, indicating that it was 12 noon by 90th meridian time.  The feat was successfully accomplished, and a general murmur of satisfaction ran through the room.” (Holbrook, 3589).

The long reign of the sundial now came to an end.  Time—as we know it—began that day.

Published in: on February 1, 2012 at 10:54 am  Comments (2)  
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It is a very sobering picture, isn’t it (the last three blogs)?  It is indeed.  Yet, even so, I promised last week that we’d now turn to the up-side, affirmation, hope, solutions.

It is time.


You will remember that, several times in recent months I have referred to my earlier prediction that, historically speaking, the other side of the zeros (100-year-turn, 500-year-turn, 1000-year-turn) invariably turns out to be radically different from all that came before—and that this one, being all three (100, 500, and 1000) would inevitably prove to be the most seismic since the years 1500 and 1000.  We are only now beginning to realize that the ebbtide of the old order is taking place before our very eyes.  What we don’t know yet is what kind of incoming tide will replace the receding one.  We can only guess.

What we can predict with a high degree of accuracy is that the pace of life and change will continue to increase in speed as the world continues to constrict into nanotechnology.  So when did all this begin to accelerate?  Only three-hundred years ago: when the zeros of 1800 replaced the zeros of the 1700’s.  Up until that crucial watershed (turning point), for millennia, the pace of life had remained relatively unchanged: the fastest land-speed being a galloping horse and the fastest sea-speed being a sailing-ship.  Because neither of these optimum speeds could be long sustained (obstacles on land and becalming on water), there was no need for clocks; sundials worked well enough, until the industrial revolution of the 1800’s when steam-power replaced sail-power.  Only when ever faster locomotives made it imperative that we divide the nation into time zones, did accurate time become relevant, for before the invention of mechanical engines, no one could possibly know for sure when either a land-vehicle or a sea-vessel would arrive at a given destination.

Every year since 1800, the pace of life has continued to accelerate.  Sometimes at such a rate that the juxtaposition of two opposites proved to be ridiculous (such as during World War I, fought with both cavalry horses and armored tanks; fought with both drifting balloons and power-driven airplanes).

Nostalgically, my thoughts drift back in time a half-century to a musical play my high school students put on during the mid 1960s.  Our theme song was “Far Away Places,” and the play began and ended with a dreaming teenager in her home bedroom, and the lyrics had to do with “those far away places with strange-sounding names.”  The music that followed came from all over the world.  Places that seemed strangely exotic to us back before jet travel replaced prop-engine travel. The world seemed so vast to us back then!

I remember when I first heard the phrase: “The world is a vast web, and you can’t touch any part of it without it affecting the lives of everyone else.”  That seemed so far-fetched back then, really too much of a stretch to take seriously.  So what if rainforests in far away Brazil or Papua New Guinea were being cut down at an ever-increasing rate?  It surely couldn’t affect me!  Far-fetched then because I’d never been to either place, and with the pace of travel back then, it seemed unlikely I ever would.  But that’s not true today when I can doze off in one continent and wake up next morning in another, thousands of miles away.  When astronauts can return to earth after having actually walked on the moon!

But the flip-side of speed is nanotechnology: being able to reduce all life and technology to such infinitesimal proportions that the naked eye cannot see it at all.  And thanks to this new  technology, sports victories can now be accurately calibrated down to a hundredth of a second—even a thousandth!

Not surprisingly, national boundaries are increasingly viewed as both indefensible and outdated, and dictatorships are toppling like rows of dominos thanks to the worldwide web of the Internet.  Not even the strongest walls in the world can keep the Pentagon’s innermost secrets from being hacked.  Corporations can set up shop in the loosy-goosiest countries (regulation-wise) on the planet; and jobs can be out-sourced to wherever in the world the hourly pay is the cheapest.  No longer does someone in the most powerful country in the world have the edge over someone in the poorest country, given that access to a computer so levels the playing field that Thomas Friedman can justifiably announce that “The World is Flat.”

* * * * *

So now comes this global slowdown that dramatically changes every aspect of life for every person on this planet—not just ours here in the U.S.  Everything was working so well—as late as only three years ago.  Then Bam!  Bam!  Bam! —one after another, the bludgeon blows continue, with no apparent end in sight.  No one appears to have the answers.  In the words of that timeless baseball skit: “Nobody’s on first.”  Nobody.  Not here in the U.S.  Not anywhere else in the world either.  All even the most powerful leaders in the world know is this: the old order, the old template that enabled all the markets in the world to peacefully coexist and churn out prosperity for the majority of the world’s industrial powers, is broken, and there isn’t a mechanic in the world who knows how to fix it.

That’s just it: it is unfixable.  The answer nobody wants to hear is this: A new template, evolved from scratch, must be created from our new realities.  It is anything but a quick fix, and it is almost certain to take a long time to develop.  And we have to face the likelihood that when we do finally get it up and running again, so that the world’s markets once again purr their satisfaction, even that template will be foredoomed to a short shelf life, because change in future years will be near continuous.

The good news is that these are exciting times in which to live.  We have been long overdue for a course-correction; unfortunately, we waited so long that this one is likely to be the mother of all lulus.

Next Wednesday, we’ll discuss silver-linings.


One of the responses to the survey has already had its effect: it urged me to keep mining the bullion of the past in my blogs.

I have been working around the clock on my eighth collection of animal stories (Animals of the Jungle). As I searched for stories, in a long-ago essay written by Hildegarde Hawthorne (granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne), published in a magazine for young people early in the twentieth century, I found a timeless treasure of thought perfect as the follow-up to last Wednesday’s blog: “Don’t Wait Until Tomorrow.”

It was inspired by Emerson’s famous poem:


“Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bringing diadems and fagots in their hands,
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.”

by Hildegarde Hawthorne

A day is a wonderful thing. It is like a great doorway flung wide for you to pass through into all manner of adventures. One after the other, these doorways open to you, each different, each opening on a fresh prospect. Fresh, yourself, after the rest and the stillness of night, you stand each morning on the threshold, and then you step through and are launched on what that day has for you.

Of course, the day, being as it were just this welcoming doorway, can not make you go out to meet what it holds. You can refuse its mighty invitations. It may be a day that opens on shadowy forest paths, on blue headlands, a day where nature is at her most beautiful best. Again it may hold a splendid hour or two of companionship with some one who could tell you much of this nature, who could give you new insight into her mysteries, who could explain what hitherto you had never understood. It might be a day made for running feet and for laughter and joy. It has opened the wide doorway to all this. But of course you can refuse it all. You can turn your back on the prospect before you, spend your hours indoors, fail to meet the friend who was waiting, sulk over some fancied slight or trouble, worry and exhaust yourself in various ways. The doorway of the day will swing close, at last, and the possibilities on which it opened will have gone, perhaps forever.

Supposing you had only one day to live in, like some of the ephemera, whom you may watch in summer, dizzy with their dancing, in a sunbeam. Just one day! Well, it would hold twenty-four hours. How splendid! How much you could do in that time. And how much to choose for the doing, the seeing, the hearing, the feeling, the thinking! A sunrise and a sunset, stars, a moon maybe, winds swaying tree-tops or ruffling water; and then comrades to play with, a fine book to read, music to hear; a ride, perhaps, in a motor-car or on a horse, a walk in a country lane or along a street filled with all manner of things worth looking at; there would be meals to eat, a lesson to study. You would have the joy of bodily exercise, the joy of loving, the delight of conversation with friends. Each hour would hold its own miracle.

At the end, before sleep came, you would find no words to describe the marvel of a day. Room in it for the exercise of all your faculties, for dreams and for reality, for play and for work. A great round day, and you alive in it.

You see, just because there is more than one day, we get too used to them to remember what they really are. We let them slip through our fingers, with their adventures unlived, their beauty unseen. Many a day has been treated as though it were just a bore, when it was simply bursting with exciting thrills. Many a day that held in it a wonderful thing, which you would have cherished all your life, has been allowed to pass away empty. For only what you take from the offerings of each day is yours.

Do you ever think over the manifold ways in which each day is spent by the people on this earth? How an Eskimo spends the day you have given over to school, to football practice, or a game of tennis or to skiing, to a matinee or a quiet time reading while the storm beats on the windows and shouts over the house? How that same day is being spent by a savage in Africa, by a Russian refugee, a coal-miner, a seaman? You can get some notion of all that a day opens on if you let your mind wander a bit in these directions.

It seems to me that the great difference between those who lead a full and interesting life and those who don’t is that the first do not let the fact that there are three hundred and sixty-five days in a year dull the wonderful possibilities of each individual day. They look before and after, of course, for the past and the future add richness to the present. But the day itself is the thing. Because tomorrow you are to go on an entrancing journey, or to the dentist, there is no reason for slighting today. It too has its worth and its gift. Live it. The combination of you and a day is too wonderful to be missed. People throw days away as if they were worthless pebbles, and then complain that life is a poor affair. One of Emerson’s noble sayings was, “Give me health and a day and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous”; and as you grow older you will cherish also in your memories his brief poem on “The Days.” It is a vivid picture in words of what I have been trying to set forth; and every earnest boy and girl can imagine the days going on about their tremendous business rather bewildered and rather amused. Here we are, they say, full of everything. And look how we’re treated and hear how we’re reviled! What’s the matter with these people, anyway?

And then the Days will show each other the unused things they had ready, which were never asked for, like handfuls of fine jewels shining in the light, but which no one stooped to pick up.

“Funny business!” sigh the Days, and if they had heads, there’d be reasons a-plenty for shaking them.

It is interesting to realize that the day that opens its great gate to you is for you only. No one else has just the same day. Even though you go every hour of the twenty-four close with a sister, a brother, a dear friend, and though what happens to you happens too to him or to her, as the case may be, yet the day will not be alike. Half of everything is the thing itself; the other half, its effect on you; and that effect can never be exactly duplicated. That is why it is that one person will get joy and interest out of a day that another will find merely tiresome.

The best will in the world can not keep dull days and dark days entirely away. You are going to miss quantities of things that you could have enjoyed, because you are tired or out of sorts or disgruntled. Other things will come to you that will be hard to bear and sad to live through. But for all that, the greater portion of your days are good days. The doorway they provide leads to much, and it is your own fault if you get only a little.

The fun of being alive and of having these days opening up, one after the other, is tremendous. Out you go to meet them, with your body, your mind, your senses, your questing spirit. You find things to laugh over, or cry over. You find things that set your mind to keen working or that strengthen your muscles or train the faculty of sight or of hearing, that make more proficient your hands, more skillful the whole bearing of your body. You meet something new to you, and have to readjust yourself and your ideas to take it in. To something else you say good-by for the last time. You will have your own interests, however, and the more, the merrier.

As your mind grows and develops, so the interests of your days should grow and extend, and each day coming ought to be more than the one gone, for you yourself are more. The trouble often is that one drops something for each new thing taken up. The play and the ecstasy of youth is lost with the deeper feeling and growing cares of maturity. But the girl or boy who goes on into maturity without losing too much of that young rapture becomes the best sort of man or woman. Don’t let your life go dry; let it keep its sap and freshness. Artists usually excel in this wisdom. The child lives on in them, making them richer and their days more radiant because it has not withered out of them. Keep what has come, and go on to what is due, and you will not be likely to find life a bore or a burden.

I remember how long a day appeared to me when I was a child—not too long, I enjoyed every moment of it, but so much longer than it does now. I had a better understanding of how great a day is, then. Now it seems short; sometimes I feel as though it merely winked at me and vanished. I can quite imagine that when I move on into eternity that eternity will soon seem to be short enough for all I want to do and be. Think of standing and waiting while the great door of eternity swings open and lets you through! But of course a day is after all a portion of eternity, and maybe it is because we are close to one end of eternity in childhood that days are eternal to us then. Why, any spring morning that was fair and welcoming I remember how I would go to lie under a certain apple-tree where the grass grew thick and the bending branches swept it, making a bower of bloom. And there I would dream away several days in a space that must really have been only a couple of hours. I would like to get back the glorious leisure of those days, to feel the promise of eternity in them; but though I haven’t lost the sense of the magnificence of a day, I can’t hold on to its vastness.

Except always in what it offers.

Now and again a day will come with a gift so splendid that you can not help but recognize it and acclaim it. You will say, as you have heard others say, “That was a great day in my life!” But don’t disdain the other days, that blow no trumpets and open no golden treasure-chests. They have their own wonderfulness, that calls to the wonderfulness in you, and through their mighty doorways you step to everything in life.

St. Nicholas, January 1923

The Magic of Turning Zeroes

    I’ve been long fascinated by fin de siècles — and even more by fin de milia –: many of us, if we live long enough, will get to see hundred-year turns (as when 1899 turned to 1900), but precious mortals in our planet’s history have been lucky enough to be alive when both occur at once (1999 turning to 2000).  I’m guessing many of you share this fascination with me.

    As an historian of ideas, I’ve long been aware that century-turns prove to be seismic — not because they are, but because they are perceived to be.  That’s why fin de siecles are well worthy of study.  Why is it that the last decade of each century is so destabilizing?  Why is it that all the old established beliefs and assumptions of that time period are put under the microscope and questioned, with more fierce intensity, as each year in that decade arrives and passes?  And why is it that the last year is the most unsettling of all? Indeed, it sometimes seems that society, on that memorable New Year’s Eve, heaves into the sky all its beliefs in one idiotic Hail Mary Pass, under the assumption that nothing is ever going to be the same on the other side of those 9s.

    But hundred-year turns pale into a mere shadow in comparison with millennial turns — both of which we experienced ten years ago.  On the basis of previous millennial and 500-year turns, I have long predicted that our generation will experience societal change and upheaval on a scale that will stagger the mind.  What those changes are likely to be, we can only speculate at this time.

    And speculate we will, beginning with Blog #2, and continuing until it is time to explore other venues.  I promise no definitive answers — only a discussion that ought to interest all those who exercise their brains on a daily basis.

    Welcome aboard!

Published in: on August 31, 2009 at 2:03 pm  Comments (8)  
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